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Stay 71/42 59/39
Care/help 73/62 58/48

Source: Komter and Schuyt (1993b).

Empirical Research on Women™s Gift Giving

From both Caplow™s and Cheal™s studies discussed in Chapter 2, it ap-
pears that women are the greater givers, a ¬nding that is corroborated
by our own research. Our results show that small but consistent gender
differences exist in the percentages of women and men who report having
given presents, food, stay, and care or help to others; as to the amount of
money gifts, women and men do not differ (see Table 4.1). The average
time spent in devising and choosing a present, whether it was bought or
made at home, was about half an hour; men take nine minutes longer
than women to ¬nd the right gift. Furthermore, men more often have
the feeling that they are giving more than they receive (49% and 26%, re-
spectively). Men experience less reciprocity in their gift exchange rela-
tionships than women do. An interesting ¬nding is that the discontent
about the balance of giving and receiving is greatest with those categories
of respondents who report to have given the least “ men, those with less
education, and elderly people. They do indeed receive less compared with
the other categories of respondents, but the difference with respect to what
they give is not necessarily greater than it is among the other categories.
In a secondary analysis of the research data, we controlled for gender
differences in income, education, and occupational level. Women keep

The Gift: Meanings and Motives

giving more than men, regardless of socioeconomic differences. Also
there are no differences among women themselves: women who do not
live in a traditional family situation and women who are employed give
as much as women who have children, live with a partner, and do not
have a paid job (unpublished data).

Presents and Money Gifts

As concerns the amount of gifts given and received during the preceding
month, again women appear to give and receive more than men do. In
one month women give an average amount of 3.5 gifts while receiving
2.8 gifts on average. The corresponding ¬gures for men are 2.6 (given)
and 2.2 (received). The majority of our respondents give and receive

gifts, the value of which does not exceed C 9. Expensive gifts, though
given, are rather exceptional. To be sure, men give fewer but more expen-

sive gifts compared with women. On average men have spent almost C 27

on gifts during the preceding month, whereas women spent around C 17.
Although men receive fewer gifts than women, these gifts are more expen-
sive. The average monetary value of gifts received by men during the pre-

ceding month amounts to C 59.4; for women, the value is about half this

amount: C 31.4.
More than two-thirds of our respondents have given money gifts to
the church, acquaintances, family, partner, or children, with children,
church, and partners receiving the greatest amounts. With money gifts,
the same pattern shows up as with “normal” gifts: men usually give
fewer gifts, but their monetary value is greater than that of women™s
“ “
money gifts (C 61.2 and C 49.9, respectively). Again, men appear to receive

fewer gifts but ones of greater value compared with women (C 126.3 and

C 107.3, respectively).
A remarkable ¬nding for which no easy interpretation is at hand is that
the monetary value of gifts received (both monetary and nonmonetary)
is higher than the value of the gifts given; this seems to contradict the

Women, Gifts, and Power

outcome that the number of gifts received is smaller than the number
of gifts given. Are we inclined to forget or underestimate what we spend
on gifts ourselves, or do we overestimate the monetary value of gifts
received? But how would that connect to the smaller number of received
gifts? Unfortunately, on the basis of our research data it is not possible to
answer these questions. An obvious explanation for the fact that women™s
gifts have a lower monetary value compared with men™s gifts is that men
have a higher average income than women so that they have more to


Women more often invite other people to dinner than men do, and are
invited more frequently by others as well. The same pattern applies to
offering a stay in one™s house and staying with others oneself: women
offer and receive more of this type of hospitality than men. Offering
one™s house to other people temporarily is for most people a matter of
course, if enough space is available. With dinners this is different. Some
dinners are merely serving sociable ends by offering the opportunity for
the exchange of friendly feelings, or moral or practical support to other
people. On other occasions, however, feelings of being obliged to others
prevail: many dinners serve to keep family or friendship ties alive, or to
ful¬ll one™s duty to reciprocate. Hospitality, then, is not a purely altruistic
giving activity. Nothing is more obliging than being invited to dinner. It
is therefore very unlikely that the cycle of gift and return gift is closed
after one round.

Care and Help

We distinguished the following types of care and help: doing small jobs
for others, caring for the sick or the elderly, giving psychological sup-
port, helping people to move, helping with transport (e.g., transporting

The Gift: Meanings and Motives

children to and from school), and participating in (unpaid) manage-
ment or administrative activities. Again, women are the ones who care
and help the most. Doing small jobs and helping people to move are
activities more often performed by men, but women offer all other types
of care or help more frequently than men do. As was the case with hos-
pitality, offering care or help does not necessarily or mainly spring from
altruistic motives. The motives lie scattered on an imaginary scale of
altruism: from sel¬‚essly wanting to contribute to the well-being of other
people, without any expectations of return, to reciprocally exchanging
help or helping as a compensation for being helped oneself, to keeping a
sharp eye as to whether the debt balance is not pending too much to one
side. You are helping other people, knowing that you will be helped in

Blood and Organs

Of our respondents 31% have given blood. More men than women have
given blood (38% and 25%, respectively), whereas women are the greater
recipients of blood. We should be aware of the fact that men are allowed to
give blood more often than women for medical reasons “ four and three
times a year, respectively. That women receive more blood may be related
to their greater needs as a result of pregnancy and childbirth. However,
more women than men have considered giving blood: 49% and 30%,
respectively. Apparently, women™s willingness to give blood is relatively
great but the restrictions to donation reduce participation. Of our re-
spondents 26% have made up an organ codicil, with female respondents
outranking their male counterparts (31% and 21%, respectively).
There are some doubts about Titmuss™s view of blood donations as the
“free” and altruistic gift par excellence (Titmuss 1970). For some of our
respondents the main motive to give blood was “having a free afternoon
from military service.” Often a kind of postponed reciprocity is involved.
One respondent says: “It can happen to me too, such an accident. You

Women, Gifts, and Power

may be in need of blood yourself, at some time, and then you are lucky
that there are some other people who have given their blood.” Perhaps
the bearers of an organ codicil are the true altruists.
It is justi¬ed, on the basis of these data, to claim that women are the
greater givers compared with men. Even though the monetary value of
the gifts they give is lower compared with that of men™s gifts (women
have less to spend), women give not only more normal gifts but also more
nonmaterial gifts than men do. Women™s liberality is consistent over all
gift objects we distinguished in the research. Moreover, the results of our
study are con¬rmed by the ¬ndings concerning women™s larger share in
gift giving, reported by Caplow and Cheal. However, women appear to
be the greatest recipients as well. The principle of reciprocity is the most
likely explanation for this. Motives to give seem to be mainly a mixture of
altruistic feelings and expectations of return, as discussed in Chapters 1
and 2. And even when gifts are given altruistically, it is assumed that
people end up with some self-reward from their unsel¬sh gift giving, for
example a positive feeling about themselves “ a phenomenon that has
been called the altruistic paradox.
How are we to explain women™s greater liberality compared with men™s?
It is unlikely that women are simply blessed with a greater level of altru-
ism than men are. Gifts may convey symbolic meanings that do not so
much harmonize with altruism but rather express thoughtlessness, indif-
ference, criticism, a need for attention, or an attempt to seduce. In fact,
the results of our research showed that gifts of this type are no exceptions.
Altruism and gift giving are often very indirectly related, if at all. As we
will see in Chapters 6 and 7, motives to offer care or help to other people
are often disinterested as well as sel¬sh. The explanation for women™s lib-
erality should rather be sought in different sets of expectations regarding
women and men, normative conceptions of what gender roles should
consist of, and in differences in the cultural and social value attributed
to women™s and men™s main domains of activity. All this should then be
considered against the background of factual inequality in women™s and

The Gift: Meanings and Motives

men™s social positions, which becomes manifest in their differing mate-
rial and nonmaterial resources (e.g., participation in paid work, income,
participation in informal networks, occupying leading positions, amount
of free time).
There are good reasons to assume that power inequality between gen-
ders is implied in women™s gift giving, but the question is what this
relationship looks like: who is bene¬ting most from women™s greater gift
giving? Are women af¬rming their own status or power position, or even
gaining in power by means of their giving, just like the inhabitants of the
Trobriand Islands? Or are women the net losers of their own gift giving
because it is merely what is expected from them as females and amounts
to the reproduction of their subordinate position in society?

Four Models to Interpret Women™s Gift Giving

The focus of the four models to be presented here is on the structural
inequality in social power between women and men, their different types
of resources, and the differential social value attributed to these. Women™s
gift exchange in our Western society might be related to power in the
four following ways: asymmetrical reciprocity in favor of men, in which
men are supposed to bene¬t most from women™s liberality; equivalent
reciprocity, in which women and men bene¬t equally by their respective
giving, albeit on different domains; asymmetrical reciprocity in favor of
women, in which women themselves bene¬t most by their important
role in gift giving; and alternating asymmetry, in which women and
men pro¬t alternatively from the dominant and gendered pattern of gift

Asymmetrical Reciprocity in Favor of Men

Reciprocal exchange is often mistaken for symmetrical exchange in the
sense that both parties exchange goods of about equal value. Under the

Women, Gifts, and Power

surface of reciprocity, however, very asymmetrical forms of exchange and
even pure exploitation may be hidden: “[E]verywhere in the world the
indigenous category for exploitation is ˜reciprocity™” (Sahlins 1972: 134).
Reciprocity, then, is not synonymous with symmetry or equivalence.
One can speak of equivalent exchange only when both parties in an
exchange relationship have rights as well as duties toward each other and
exchange goods of about equal value. Many anthropological studies about
gift exchange seem to con¬rm the model of “asymmetrical reciprocity in
favor of men”: men are the dominant parties in gift giving, and prevailing
patterns of gift exchange bene¬t men more than women; men are reported
to assert dominance over women by demanding obedience and ignoring
women™s concerns (Strathern 1988).
When women do not, or barely, take part in gift exchange (as
Malinowski wrongly assumed), this may be a manifestation of their sub-
ordinate role in a certain society. But also when women do have a sub-
stantial share in gift giving, as in our own society, this may be interpreted
as a sign of their subordination. Women™s liberality in Western society
may be explained in terms of asymmetrical reciprocity in favor of men
because it reinforces and reproduces the hierarchically ordered division of
labor and the unequal power relationship between genders. The domain
of the market economy with its formally regulated patterns of exchange
prevails over the domain of the informal gift economy in terms of power
and prestige. In this model women™s greater share in giving gifts is related
to their position within the family and their traditional responsibility for
maintaining social contacts. As “kinkeepers” (Rosenthal 1985) women
are expected to keep a good record of birthdays, wedding days, and other
festivities, or to visit ill people, and to buy the appropriate presents. Be-
cause of these expectations, women can barely escape their gift giving
duties, whether they like them or not. Historically speaking, there are
good reasons to assume that the signi¬cance of women™s gift giving has
even increased during the past decades: the relative stability of social
and familial networks is diminishing as a consequence of an increased

The Gift: Meanings and Motives

divorce rate and of the growing geographical distances that separate peo-
ple™s domiciles (van Leer 1995). From this perspective reinforcing social
ties through gift giving is more needed than ever.
Up to a certain extent the dominant gender relationships and stereo-
types force women™s liberality upon them. In this model giving is a form
of “ not entirely voluntary “ labor performed by women merely serving
to af¬rm their inferior social position.

Equivalent Reciprocity

It is also possible that exchange relationships imply different but com-
plementary power resources to women and men. What women and men
give is different but yet equivalent. This would be a case of equivalent
reciprocity. Weiner (1976) gives an example of such an interpretation of
gift exchange by women in a non-Western society. She shows that the
Trobriand women were especially active as givers of gifts on the occasion
of rituals concerning the cycle of life and death. Women play an outstand-
ing role in the regeneration of dala, the transmission of the identity of the
nameless and anonymous ancestors who are assumed to have “the same
blood” and come from the same place and the same country (Weiner
1976: 253). Women envelop their child in a towel, bind it to a stick, and
put the stick in the soil where they are laboring. They hope that the an-
cestors™ spirit will thus enter into the child through the soil and the stick.
In the experience of the Trobriand inhabitants the essence of persons
and their spirit is transmitted by women. According to Weiner, women
therefore dispose of an important form of power and control, namely
the control over the ahistoric, cosmic, timeless phenomena of life and
death. Men derive their power and control from another domain, that of
material possessions and wealth, concrete gifts like yams, arm shells, and
necklaces “ the famous Kula gifts described by Malinowski “ to concrete
persons. This domain is, much more than that of women, situated in
historical time and space. The gifts men give to each other derive their

Women, Gifts, and Power

value, among others, from the fact that they inherited them from famous
and respected persons. By giving precious goods to each other, men cre-
ate relationships between speci¬c individuals over different generations.
Weiner concludes that women as well as men dispose of important power
resources, but each does so in a different domain.
Are these ideas relevant to our own culture? Of course, our market
economy has replaced the former gift economy to a certain extent (not
completely, though, as the gift economy still exists alongside the market
economy). And, of course, our culture radically differs from the one of
the Trobriand inhabitants. Nevertheless, some parallels with Weiner™s
¬ndings may be drawn. The market is the domain where men still are in
possession of most power resources: they are playing the most active role
in the exchange of money and commodities. The informal exchange of
gifts outside the market is mainly the domain of women. Arguing from
the model of symmetrical reciprocity, men and women derive equivalent
power from their respective exchange transactions. By means of their
giving gifts, women function as the guardians of social relationships.
Women and their gifts are, so to speak, the “greasing oil” of our society,
without which the human machinery would certainly break down. In
contrast, men are in large part responsible for economic transactions.
The big money is mainly circulating through their hands, and also the
“greasing money” “ monetary bribery “ is still predominantly a male
affair. The economic domain of commodity production and exchange
offers many possibilities to acquire power and prestige. Analogously to
Weiner™s reasoning, however, women would have another but equally im-
portant domain of exchange transactions from which to derive power: in-
terpersonal interaction, the social machinery where everything has to run
smoothly as well. The exchange of economically not “useful” but symbol-
ically rich and socially indispensable gifts by women would, then, equal
the economically useful exchange of commodities performed mainly by
men. In the latter type of exchange, the social and symbolic meaning is
subordinate to the economic one.

The Gift: Meanings and Motives

Asymmetrical Reciprocity in Favor of Women

Although Weiner interprets her own ¬ndings as a case of what I called
“symmetrical reciprocity,” another interpretation is possible as well. The
symbolic control the Trobriand women were exerting over the cosmic cy-
cle of life and death may be regarded as a much more fundamental source
of power than the kind of power that ensues from men™s historically,
temporally, and spatially restricted, concrete, and speci¬c forms of gift
exchange. The transmission of dala is, in the end, a precondition of all
other forms of gift exchange. When one is insecure about the continuity
of the ancestral spirit, actual, competitive gift exchange between men
may not even be possible at all. The preservation of existing ties and the
formation of new ones may become problematic in that case.
In our Western world, too, one might consider women™s important role
in gift exchange as an indispensable investment in the social fundament of
our society. This social fundament can be considered as being more basic
than the economic fundament. Without a certain amount of kindness and
benevolence in relationships between people, at home, at work, and in
other kinds of social contexts, the survival chances of the market economy
are in jeopardy. Economic life can simply not dispense with forms of
institutionalized or noninstitutionalized kindness: the “human factor”
cannot be left out.
Without suggesting that this role is, or should be, the exclusive pre-
rogative of women, the well-known gender differences do play a role
here. Not every woman has social skills, and many men are as socially
skilled as women, but in everyday practice concern for the human factor
and the capacity to transform this concern into concrete acts of benev-
olence are often found in women. They are the ones who buy ¬‚owers
for ill colleagues and toys for newborn babies. They are the binding fac-
tor on the yearly “day out” with one™s colleagues. They keep an eye on
the personal well-being of the people surrounding them and often act
as intermediaries in case of con¬‚icts. These acts of symbolic or material

Women, Gifts, and Power

kindness toward others, in considerable part performed by women, are
indispensable for maintaining a livable world.
Women™s greater share in gift giving may, therefore, imply a relative
advantage in terms of the social resources it offers them. Women indeed
often have more and longer-lasting friendships than men, start new con-
tacts more easily through school or neighborhood, are more often con-
cerned about their family members, and therefore develop more intensive
family ties compared with men. Although business connections bene¬t
men more in terms of economic resources, women™s personal relations
offer them more social and human advantage. In the end, this last type of
advantage might prove to be more important than any economic pro¬t:
in times of personal problems, illness, death, or other misery, a business
connection is of no great use. After all, our personal happiness is more
dependent on interpersonal than on economic factors, if a certain level
of economic resources is guaranteed.
In this third model, women™s liberality brings the greatest bene¬t to
themselves. The asymmetric pattern of gift exchange existing between
genders advantages women more than men, not only because they re-

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